Subtly and insidiously, my medications, once merely inert composites of chemicals, acquired an agency of their own and took center stage in my life as sophomore year began to wind down. I was not consciously aware of this happening, even though all along it was my fingers opening the bottles and my mouth consuming the pills. At some point, this massive but imperceptible reconfiguration of power had taken place, and before long, I had developed a link between taking my meds and accomplishing each and every task in my day-to-day life. I believed that until I’d taken the morning dose of my antidepressant, I would feel and act as though I’d woken up on the wrong side of the bed. I knew that I wouldn’t have enough energy to study, exercise, or make it through a day of classes until I’d taken my antinarcoleptic. I was convinced that there was just no way I’d ever be able to fall asleep at night until I’d taken my sleep medication. These were unquestionable facts to me that I was sure, in my mind, were true. I never missed a dose. I medicated myself as though I were a finely calibrated machine, the most delicate error potentially throwing me off emotionally, psychologically, and physically for an unpredictable amount of time. And, just as I was dangerously unaware of the power I had inadvertently given these pills, I had also become completely incapable of distinguishing between what was me and what was my meds.
‘Am I feeling OK in this moment because the Prozac is doing its work?’ ‘Would I be able to be as focused on my studies right now if I hadn’t just taken my Provigil?’ ‘Am I feeling really sad right now because my Prozac is wearing off?’ Questions like these filled my mind constantly, and initially I never had an answer. As time progressed and I grew further and further away from who I had been before I began taking medications, however, I came to believe that nearly each and every thought, feeling, and action I had or took was not in my hands but was being shaped by the chemicals in my body. I had essentially become a vehicle to carry these tiny pills and capsules, a living and breathing medium through which they did their work. Any sense of an integral self had vanished on the dark horizon along with the happiness I’d given up on months earlier.
I would look at myself in the mirror just as I had way back in eighth grade, though now under very different circumstances, and not know the girl staring blankly back at me. I’d lose myself in her eyes, staring intently and in desperation, waiting for the light bulb to click on and for me to remember who this stranger was and for the feeling that everything would be OK to flow through me, even though I had no idea what that meant or how it could possibly happen. As this disconnect within myself intensified, I became more and more reliant on the external, measurable things in my life in order to feel like I knew who I was. Through each pound I lost on the scale, or each good grade I received, I was able to cling to something, anything, to avoid freefalling into complete oblivion of self.
As time went on and these externalities failed to make me feel as though I knew who I was, the vocabulary I used to describe myself continued to reduce itself until the only explanation I had left was encapsulated in one word. Bipolar. Not that I was a girl who lived with bipolar disorder, or that I was a girl who had been diagnosed with a disease, but that I was bipolar. It encompassed me, coating me in a layer of existential paint that also permanently stained the lens through which I saw my physical and emotional world. No other words resonated with me any more. And although I had been filled with hope and a fighting motivation to control this disease after I initially embraced the diagnosis over a year earlier, it had now come to take on a deeper, darker meaning, because it really, now, was all that I was.
When summer came at the end of sophomore year, these realizations had brought me to a place where I believed that it was utterly impossible for anyone else to understand what I was going through. I made the decision to move into an apartment off campus when school started that coming September. I determined that I no longer needed the sense of community my house (Harvard’s equivalent to a dorm) offered, with its own dining hall, library, and scheduled weekly activities. I was sure that my best friend, with whom I’d lived since coming to college– the one who’d started to tell me she was worried about my health, that I was looking too thin, and that I didn’t seem happy– didn’t have my best interests at heart. I was ready to shut out anybody and everybody who didn’t agree with the way I had decided to live my life, and was filled with anger whenever anyone suggested that I needed help. ‘Who are you to tell me I need help?’ I’d think. ‘You have absolutely no idea who I am.’
Every offer pushed me further and further away from friends and deeper into myself. It became a small personal victory when I could get through a day having spoken to five people or less. I’d come back to my dorm room just before bed, take my sleeping pill, and shut myself off from my roommates. It made perfect sense to me, therefore, that I should change my environment when I came back for junior fall so that the burden of interacting with others could just be avoided altogether– no one to be accountable to on a regular basis, no one to tell me they were concerned about me, no one to give me their two cents on what they thought I needed. I would be left alone with what had become my frugal existence- medications, therapy, excessive exercise and diet restriction, and academics.
After a failed intervention by my roommates at the end of classes in which they told me they thought I needed to get some help over the summer, I angrily packed my bags, left school early, and drove to Connecticut to finish up my final papers from home. I’d spent all my time mired in resentment towards them, and hadn’t thought about how I’d transition back to my hometown for the entire summer, the place I’d chosen to leave years earlier because I was convinced it would give me a second chance at happiness. I was almost immediately to discover that the rigid structure I’d built up around myself during that second year at Harvard was nothing but my own ‘house of cards’, this one built with pill bottles, calorie-counting, and straight ‘A’s. It would come toppling down within a matter of days.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.
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